Celia Imrie on acting, growing up in Guildford an leading roles

One of our best-loved comedy actresses, Celia Imrie is famed for her brilliant cameos in films such as Calendar Girls, Bridget Jones’s Diary and St Trinian’s. But why have we never seen her playing the lead? As she prepares to put that right in a new production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, here she chats to Angela Wintle about growing up in Guildford – and the cruel letter that unwittingly set her on the path to fame

Celia Imrie has been a mandatory ingredient in almost every successful British comedy of the past decade. Best known for playing Miss Babs in Acorn Antiques, the Olivier award-winning actress has featured in many films besides – St Trinian’s, Nanny McPhee, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Calendar Girls among them.

With her chiselled cheekbones, elegant composure and cut-glass accent – and that killer instinct for comic timing – she has avoided the abyss that confronts many actresses of a certain age, and seems more in demand than ever.

She once acknowledged it was a real drag for some women because their careers depended on their looks. “I’ve been lucky because I’ve never been a pretty young thing and have always been given quirky, slightly frumpy parts – and am grateful for that,” she said at the time. “Apart from anything else, roles like mine are so much more fun and stop you getting above yourself.”

As it happens, I can’t imagine Celia, 58, ever demanding the best dressing room. By all accounts, she’s a thoroughly good egg and, true to type, generally casts herself in supporting roles as the best friend or good sport. But some years ago, she began to question this policy and decided that perhaps it was time she pushed herself to take the leads. This is one reason why she’ll be performing in a new production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever at the Rose Theatre in Kingston over the next few weeks.

Celia plays the outrageous actress Judith Bliss, wife of the novelist David Bliss and mother to their two unconventional children, as they welcome four guests to their country home on the Thames. Needless to say, misunderstandings soon arise and the unwitting guests long to flee, with hilarious consequences.

Director Stephen Unwin describes it as Coward’s “great comedy of bad manners” and says he aims to lay bare the brilliant assault on suburban values that lies at the heart of the play.

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“I was asked if I’d do it and found it totally irresistible because it’s a wonderful part,” says Celia, shortly before the start of rehearsals. “I’ve spent a lot of time playing supportive parts, which I love doing, but I must challenge myself to do great leads.

“And I was quite relieved to be offered this, because it’s the one role that I haven’t seen Dame Judi do. We did once perform it on the radio together and I have to say that when I’m reading it, I can only ever hear her voice. But imagine what it would have been like if I’d actually seen her perform it on stage. I wouldn’t have been able to get her brilliance out of my head.”

Celia has never performed at the Rose, though she did once read aloud to a group of children in the foyer, which proved fortuitous because it’s where she and Unwin first met.


Growing up in Guildford

Just a short commute away from her West London home, she’s certainly no stranger to Surrey. The fourth of five children (four of them girls), she grew up in a virginia creeper-covered house in Guildford, with a nanny and nursery, and had a happy childhood.

“We were a bit of a noise to my father, who was a radiologist and had patients to the house, so we were always being told to keep quiet. He was known as the galloping doctor because he used to ride out on to Epsom Downs to see if the jockeys had any broken bones.”

Devoted to her mother, she remembers her as a glamorous figure who, on evenings out, swathed herself in perfume, scarlet chiffon and crystal beads. “She loved parties and the races – our carpets were bought with her winnings. And she used to play the violin and entertain people with Gypsy rhapsodies. She was also a wonderful storyteller and every part I play has an enormous amount of her in it.”

Celia has vivid memories of Guildford – of the big town clock and the cobbles in the high street. She failed to shine academically at all-girls Guildford High, though she did throw the javelin for Surrey. “The school was literally down the road, but we were always late and I was habitually being scolded for not having my long hair tied back.”

She was branded Fatso at school, so she responded by becoming the class clown. Her performing streak was nurtured by one Miss Nesbitt who gave her meaty parts in the school’s Shakespeare productions. At 16, she got a job as an usherette at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford and vividly remembers watching Dame Flora Robson, Royce Mills and Max Adrian from the wings.

But ballet was her first love and every Saturday morning she would race down Guildford High Street to her class at Bellair’s on the river. At the age of 11, she auditioned for the Royal Ballet School, but found the rejection letter hidden in her mother’s desk. She would never become a ballerina, it said, because she would grow to be too big. So she promptly stopped eating and was hospitalised for anorexia in Great Ormond Street, recovered, then suffered a relapse at 14 and found herself in a psychiatric ward.

“It was ghastly, but the most disturbing thing is that the condition seems more prevalent than ever,” she says. “I wish I could be of help to girls going through it. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to believe there can be a lightning flash, but there can. The thing that makes me most upset is the terrible waste of time and the worry I caused my mother.”

She has been making up for lost time ever since. One of Victoria Wood’s stalwarts in Acorn Antiques, her abiding memory is of the laughter on set, and she linked up again with Julie Walters in Calendar Girls, joining an ensemble cast that included Dame Helen Mirren. She hated her disrobing scene, but being surrounded by pals helped. “We just got on with it.”


Glittering career

In Bridget Jones’s Diary, she played the best friend of Ren�e Zellweger’s meddlesome mum. “Ren�e couldn’t have been more charming,” she recalls. And in her two St Trinian’s outings, she was flanked by Rupert Everett and Colin Firth. “Aren’t I a lucky girl? Colin has a wonderfully dry sense of humour and I’d be in anything Rupert asked me to be in. He’s much smarter than people think.”

Her next big film outing will be in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, in which she has a scene with the “delicious” Sir Anthony Hopkins. Later this month, she will also appear in a one-off BBC4 drama called Florizel Street, charting former child actor Tony Warren’s fight to bring Coronation Street to our television screens. Celia will play Doris Speed, alias Rovers Return landlady Annie Walker, which was a terrific part, she says.

Throughout her packed career, she has remained resolutely single, though she has a 15 year-old son, Angus, with former love Benjamin Whitrow, best known for playing Mr Bennet in the Colin Firth television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Angus came along when she was 42 and had given up hope of having children. “I’m daily grateful and he’s a very charming young man. And he has a great relationship with his father, which is important to say.”

It seems Celia couldn’t ask for more. “I’ve been jolly lucky, but I’m going to continue living life as fully as I can and grab hold of every second,” she says resolutely.


My Favourite Surrey...

Restaurant: When I was growing up, I loved the Corona caf� on Guildford High Street. My mother used to herd us in there when she didn’t know what else to do with us, and I remember businessmen sipping tea behind their newspapers. We had a family saying: “Oh, we’re going to be very Corona”, which meant we were going to have something to eat while reading our comics.

Places to shop: I hate shopping and famously wear the same things for 15 years. But John Lewis in Kingston is rather wonderful and I like Debenhams in Guildford.

View: St Martha’s Hill between Guildford and Chilworth. My father used to take us there for the Boxing Day meet, which I think is a rather ghastly thing now, but didn’t then. It’s a beautiful spot and so steep that we used to slide down the hill on trays when it snowed.

Places to chill: When I was a student, we used to sit along the River Wey in Berryfield. The Jolly Farmer Inn in Bramley, near Guildford, is also a favourite.

Place to visit: Loseley House, near Guildford, has very fond memories for me because I performed in two open-air productions there – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night – before becoming a professional actress.